- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 25, 2007

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates

Widely touted as the Middle East’s very own Orlando, Dubailand, a cluster of mega-billion-dollar projects, is gradually emerging across the desert sands of the booming Gulf emirate.

Faced with a dwindling wealth of oil, Dubai has taken on a new challenge of larger-than-life projects in line with its ambition to become the region’s main business and leisure hub.

Already primed as a vacation destination, Dubai is fast executing plans to build a host of new hotels, golf courses, malls and leisure facilities in hopes of doubling the number of tourists to 15 million by 2015.

Initially planned to cover an area of 71 square miles, Dubailand, billed as the “world’s most ambitious tourism, leisure and entertainment project,” is expected to be a sprawling 107 square miles. This would make it larger than the entire city of Orlando, Fla. — home to Walt Disney World, Universal Resort, Sea World and a variety of other attractions and hotels.

Dubailand is going to be a city within a city,” said Mohammed al-Habbai, chief executive officer of Dubailand, a subsidiary of the government-owned Tatweer.

“We are very confident in what we are doing,” he said. “I would say that most of our projects are on time.”

Western-oriented Dubai’s bid to position itself on the world tourism map has propelled it way ahead of its oil-rich conservative Gulf neighbors.

It already prides itself on building the sail-shaped Burj Al-Arab hotel and three palm-tree shaped islands off the coast, where the ambitious island project in the shape of a world map has fast become yet another landmark.

In June, Dubai also announced its $100 million purchase of the Queen Elizabeth 2, one of the world’s most majestic cruise liners, which it plans to turn it into a luxury floating hotel berthed at one of the palm islands.

A model version of Dubailand still shows its vast barren surroundings, which in three years’ time will be awash with even more golf courses, theme parks, mega-malls and residential towers.

“This area will definitely be completely different by 2010,” when 3 million visitors a year are expected to come to Dubailand alone, said Mr. al-Habbai.

The entire 24-project venture, not scheduled for completion before 2025, is estimated to cost $64 billion, 60 percent of which is expected to come from private investors.

This does not even include the mammoth Bawadi project, announced in 2006 as the world’s largest hospitality and leisure development. It consists of more than 50 themed hotels with 60,000 rooms, almost double the number currently available in Dubai.

In May, the emirate’s ruler, Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, seen as the driving force behind Dubai’s phenomenal economic growth, announced doubling the value of Bawadi to $54 billion.

One of its hotels, AsiaAsia, will be the world’s largest with 6,500 rooms and will be developed by Tatweer. Forty-five percent of the cost has been assumed by private investors, Mr. al-Habbai said.

Tatweer is part of Dubai Holding, a conglomerate owned by the government of Dubai, which oversees mega-projects in the emirate and is currently experiencing a burgeoning property boom.

In the throes of constructing the world’s highest building, whose ultimate height remains a closely guarded secret, Dubai also plans to house a Great Wheel, whose size will rival that of the London Eye observation wheel.

Dubailand will also house the world’s largest transparent snow dome and a Universal Studio theme park, announced in March by Tatweer.

The latter will be part of a $2.2 billion Universal City Dubai, comprising 4,000 hotel rooms and some 100 restaurants.

Along with Tiger Woods Dubai — a 25-million-square-foot golf course and community featuring palaces and mansions by September 2009 — Universal City will be the only Dubailand projects funded by Tatweer.

Taking it one step further, the Falcon City of Wonders will boast replicas of the Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

Aqua Dunya is also expected to be one of the world’s largest water parks.

Several stadiums are being constructed in Dubailand’s Sports City and a comprehensive Motor City is taking shape around the currently operational Dubai Autodrome.

Despite the frenetic expansion, Mr. al-Habbai dismissed fears of saturation in the market, which currently faces a hotel room shortage in peak periods.

Dubailand is going to create a new segment in the market for leisure and entertainment,” now mainly focused on beach and shopping vacations, he said.

Grandiose shopping malls are also well in the making in Dubai, a member of the seven-member United Arab Emirates.

Tatweer announced in May a $2.7 billion deal with Al-Ghurair Investment to develop a four-million-square-foot mall in the Bawadi retail zone.

And the Mall of Arabia, expected to open its first phase in early 2009, aims to extend to become the world’s largest at 10 million square feet.

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